The study of the Great Books – a fluctuating list of predominantly Western texts hailed by academics – has long been criticized as elitist, sexist, and Eurocentric. But Roosevelt Montás is coming to the books’ defense. The Columbia University alumnus and professor is a fierce advocate for liberal arts education, and vouches for the transformational power of the school’s Great Books program, one of the last of its kind. In “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation,” he reflects on four authors – Augustine, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi – and his own experiences growing up in the Dominican Republic and the New York City borough of Queens. He recently spoke with the Monitor.
What are the Great Books and why are they important?
The Great Books are books that have demonstrated a capacity to speak to many different kinds of people in many different historical periods and cultural circumstances, books that can illuminate the life of an individual that may be very different from the writer of the book.
That’s somewhat of a loose definition, but it has to be because there is no ultimate, final list of Great Books. They help us orient ourselves before our basic condition of being human, before our basic condition of living in a society with other people.
What do people often misunderstand about a liberal arts education?
I think many people who have not gone to a liberal arts school … may think about it as a liberal, left-wing, academic elite orientation. That’s because the word “liberal” carries political connotations in our particular context. And of course, the word “arts” [has] a reputation for being a thing that’s useless.
Why was it important for you to incorporate your own life experiences into this book?
Part of what’s difficult about speaking about the value of liberal arts is that so much of the value is experiential. It’s so experiential that any kind of summary or arguments about why it’s important or transformative fails. So, with this book, I tried to present a case, an experiential account, of how a liberal education shaped my own life and transformed my own perspective of the world so as to give people not just an argument about liberal education, but, I hope, a taste of what the experience is like.
Why didn’t you choose to highlight any female authors, and what can you say about the presence of women in the Great Books curriculum?
The choice of writers had a lot to do with the writers that had a big impact on my life. It highlights something really important about the history of the canon, which is that it has been a history of exclusion and a history of marginalization of certain voices. The biggest marginalized group has been women. Even though I don’t write about any major women writers, the debates that shape our notions of gender equality and our recognition of the ways in which women have been oppressed and exploited throughout history are very much present. Those voices and those tensions are in even those texts that are written by white male writers.
What would you say to Wallace Gray, one of your Great Books professors, if he were alive today?
I think the first thing I would want to articulate to him is gratitude, is “Thank you.” Because he opened up really vast worlds to me, and the way he did it was by his own personal engagement with these books. He loved teaching. He loved the books. He loved the power of those ideas and of literature. … It rubbed off on me, something about the way that he read the books, about the way that he opened the books for us, about the way that he engaged us.
In an increasingly divisive and hostile society, what do you think the Great Books and a liberal arts education can contribute toward unification?
I do think that the Great Books are one of the possible bridges … to bring about greater unity, coherence, greater sense of a shared vision and of a shared humanity. I think the various ways in which you can describe our moment of crisis, whether it’s socioeconomic inequality, racial disparity, ideological polarization, all of those have something in common, which is our increasing isolation from each other, our increasingly compromised capacity to speak with each other, our increasingly tenuous sense of shared norms of truth.
The Great Books are great precisely because of their capacity to bridge those differences, to get at something that is fundamentally the same between human beings.